This is going to be a tough one. My assignment is to give some comment on Jeff Sharlet’s “here come the virgins” piece from the last issue of Rolling Stone, and I suddenly wish that magazine hadn’t taken this blog’s advice.
Sharlet’s is the sort of piece that everybody — and I mean everybody — will filter through the high-magnification lens of personal experience. As a result, anything I write is likely to be sifted for double entendres, prudery, libertinism, or hints at my own sex history.
Well, I admit nothing and deny everything, which is both less and more than I can say for the subjects of Sharlet’s analysis.
At one point, our scribe finds himself in a bar, at a birthday party, surrounded by a bunch of twentysomething true-love-waits types. Sharlet wants to interview one of girls and he asks his guide, “How should I broach the subject?”
The response: “Just tell her you want to talk about her virginity.”
The whole article is an interesting mix of Johnny-on-the-spot reporting and theorizing about the deeper meaning of it all. Sharlet noticed that an awful lot of youngish Christians are rediscovering and reinventing old ideals of virginity and chastity, and so he decided to ask them about it.
The resulting Rolling Stone piece is a sort of answer, but the author gets a few things wrong and underplays some important elements of the story.
Wrong: Sharlet tries to draft James Dobson into the anti-masturbation movement when Dobson has clearly signaled that he is not onboard that train. And he uses fundamentalist as more of a catch-all veneer than a precise description. I mean, call me crazy [You're crazy -- ed.] but the interviewee who refuses to say that anal-sex-only enthusiasts aren’t virgins because he doesn’t want to get caught up in “legalism” . . . just cannot be a fundamentalist. Trust me on this.
Underplayed: Sharlet’s vision of why a new abstinence movement has sprouted is heavy on theological inquiry — decent theological inquiry, mind you — but light on more mundane explanations. I grew up in the Eighties and Nineties as part of the subculture that Sharlet likes to play anthropologist to; the true-love-waits thing seemed as much a response to the AIDS crisis and related spikes in STDs as a theological innovation.
Speaker Josh McDowell (pictured), in particular, used to scare the hell out of young audiences with the message that premarital sex could kill them or render them infertile. The newer crop of preachers and speakers has come up with different justifications, but the old anguished struggle is still there and the response to kids getting hot and bothered hasn’t changed all that much: This is bad for you; it could lead to physical or spiritual death, or both; abstain and trust in Jesus and your fellow believers to get you through.